The Picture Book: Using Word Count as a Revision Tool

The last couple of days have been a whirl of productivity for me. And, you know, the good kind–where you’re actually happy-ish with the work.

What happened?

Short story: I chopped the picture book in half.

Long story (Because you know I never use just the short story):

Like I said onย  Monday, I’ve got a couple of events coming down the line that will give me a chance to get the picture book critiqued. I’ve known all along that it had way too many words (anywhere between 700 and 900, depending on which draft you opened up). I was okay with that, because I know that I am good at cutting and trimming and sharpening, turning a long scene or story into a much shorter one. It’s not a natural talent–I developed it over the three years I worked as a closed-captioner, taking TV and movie dialogue and editing it down to a specific word-per-minute reading rate. Anyway, I knew I could do it, so I wasn’t worrying about doing it…yet.

Until these critiques reared their heads. Because what was the point of submitting a picture book that I knew was too long. That’d be the first thing the critiquer told me, maybe even the only thing. Which would be a total waste. Plus, for one of the critiques, I only get to submit the first 300 words. Before I started this revision, 300 words barely got the reader past the opening.

So I cut. I didn’t take a red pencil and mark up the words I had. Instead, I opened a new file and only typed in the words I thought I could keep. Note I did not say “the words I needed.” Because, honestly, I really didn’t feel like I knew which those were yet. And, yes, I played as I went and moved things around and fiddled with the story . By the end of the day I had a draft that was just over 600 words, with red placeholders where I knew I need something different from what I had. I was still feeling pretty muddled and not confident about what those something-differents might be, but I was pretty happy with that 600+ word-count. I figured that, give or take a very few, this was the number of words I had to work with.

What did I do next? What I always do when I’m trying to learn about a genre–I went to the experts. I hauled a stack of my favorite picture books over to the couch, and I read. I let myself reread some of the older ones, from my childhood–Millions of Cats, Choo Choo, The Story about Ping, but I knew that was more play than work–yes, they’re wonderful, but they don’t have the low word-count or the story form I was looking for.

So I went on to two books that are pretty fantastic and that were published in the last year or so: Linda Urban’s Mouse was Mad and Bonny Becker’s Visitor for Bear. I was looking for a few things:

  • What were the heroes’ goals?
  • In what way did the heroes actively try to reach those goals?
  • What were the obstacles to the heroes’ attempts?
  • What words (and how few) did the authors use to show these story pieces?
  • What words (and, again, how few) did the authors use to increase tension across the story?
  • What information did the authors include and what did they choose to leave out?

These are all questions I have been struggling with in the picture book. Questions that I had been trying to answer by writing and fiddling with too many words. As I read Linda and Bonnie’s books, I did get the starts of some thoughts about how to do it differently, thoughts I played with yesterday. I think the most important thing I got, though, was a reminder that this can be done. A good, strong, funny, what-next, complete story can be written with a very small number of words. And when it’s done well, it’s magic.

I’m not saying yet that I can do it. I’m not Linda Urban, and I’m not Bonny Becker. What I am, though, especially since yesterday–when I got new story ideas, cut more words and added some better ones, strengthened characters, and got my husband to say he could “see the illustrator having fun with this”โ€”is a writer committed anew to this genre and to wanting to find my place in its market.

And did I mention, a writer who finally has a picture-book draft that feels like it might be getting there and that is…wait for it: under 500 words?

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16 thoughts on “The Picture Book: Using Word Count as a Revision Tool

  1. That’s a lotta cutting, Becky. While I think that picture books need to be tightly written, sometimes too much is taken out. I cut 600 words from one of mine and it’s still 775 words but I can’t see how I could cut any more without destroying the characterization or plot.

    Some authors still write relatively long pbs – Kevin Henkes and Patricia Polacco, to name a few. Interesting post!

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    • beckylevine says:

      Stella, I think it depends on the story. And I love both Kevin Henkes & Patricia Polacco. The thing is, though, I think there are things you can do when you’re established & things you can do when you’re new. I’m definitely new! ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. Wonderful, Becky! I have a PB in my “misfit ideas” drawer that is, get this, 1,755 words! Crazy, yes? So, there it stays until I get the courage to go a-cutting away. Is the critique you’ve mentioned for Mary Cole? I’m doing that webinar today, or at least, attempting it with four kids home on snow day number two.

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  3. Domenica Di Piazza says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience about cutting text. On the editorial side, it’s one of the most challenging things we deal with, and I’ll be sure to let Lerner authors know of this post when I ask for word cuts!

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  4. Marianne Galvin says:

    What a great post! Very helpful to know all this! I have a pb written and it is….are you ready?….. 2730 words! I am getting ready to shave it down. I love it the way it is but it is too long! Thanks again1

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